Investigators go undercover at Shirebrook’s Sports Direct ‘gulag’ to expose life on the shop floor at controversial retail giant

Shirebrook protest rally at Sports Direct.
Shirebrook protest rally at Sports Direct.

Undercover reporters have described conditions inside the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook - detailing working life in what staff call ‘the gulag’.

The Guardian Newspaper sent two journalists onto the site as part of a major investigation into the retail giant, to which the Chad contributed.

The investigation describes hoards of staff making their way to the site from distant carparks, clutching their packed lunches in see-through carrier bags to get them past security.

The article states: “These security procedures are not designed to monitor people attempting to gain access to some secret organisation engaged in highly classified work – or even individuals visiting dangerous criminals.

“This is the routine grind for low-paid staff reporting for work on the nine-hour “day shift” at the warehouse of Sports Direct, the thriving sports retail empire founded and controlled by the billionaire owner of Newcastle United, Mike Ashley.”

The probe also describes how workers are harangued by name via tannoy if they don’t move quickly enough, while ‘crimes’ against the company – known as ‘strikes’ include ‘errors’, ‘excessive or long toilet breaks’, ‘time wasting’, ‘excessive chatting’, ‘horseplay’, ‘wearing branded goods’ and ‘using a mobile phone in the warehouse’ – are punished. Six strikes in six months and you’re out, the newspaper reports.

The article reports that Mike Ashley refuses to increase productivity by investing in new technology. Instead, he has built “a retail machine whose cogs almost entirely consist of people: cheap people, typically from eastern Europe, who understand little, if any, English. To accommodate them, all signs and announcements inside the building are made in Polish as well as English.”

“It’s voodoo retailing,” says one former executive colleague of Ashley’s. “He makes money out of financial engineering. The buying and manufacturing is very simple and done in the dumbest way possible. There is no complexity. Everything is bought as cheaply as possible. There is one warehouse, located in one of the cheapest places in the country, there is no sophisticated computer system. If you go to the Amazon warehouse it is all very automated. At Sports Direct it is very manual.”

In January 2014 the Chad exclusively revealed that police were called to the Shirebrook HQ after a migrant worker gave birth to a baby boy in the staff toilets on New Year’s Day.

The news outraged politicians and union leaders who raised concerns about health and safety practices at the Shirebrook-based company, owned by billionaire businessman and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley.

In its own investigation almost two years ago, Chad revealed that MPs and union chiefs were calling on the firm to urgently review its working practices and allow unions onto the site.

Sports Direct said the Guardian’s findings contained “inaccuracies” but declined to comment further. The Best Connection agency, which supplies many of the zero-hour contract staff at the site, declined to comment.

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Undercover investigation reveals the reality of working at Shirebrook’s Sports Direct warehouse and how staff ‘don’t get minimum wage’